Athens Digest 17.05.2018

• Top judge quits amid legal challenge to pension cuts

• Differences with institutions narrowing, say Greek officials

• Tsipras to meet Zaev at Western Balkans summit

• New poll brings smiles to Conservatives

• Gas deals lined up for DEPA privatisation

# The chairman of Greece’s top administrative court has resigned in protest at leaks over a bailout-related case. In a live televised statement, Council of State chairman Nikos Sakellariou announced his decision following news reports that the court had rejected a legal challenge against pension cuts planned for next year. The 67-year-old judge, his voice strained with emotion, said the case was still ongoing but that the leaks had made it impossible for him to continue. In a highly unusual move, he criticized the pre-legislated austerity measures, arguing they would drive millions of Greeks into “utter despair.” New Democracy accused the government of “exerting unprecedented pressure” on the judiciary, while Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis called on judges to defend the institution with their continued service.

# Greek officials say they have narrowed differences with the bailout institutions after the first day of negotiations with mission chiefs in Athens, with “four or five sticking points” remaining. With just one week left till the next Eurogroup meeting, a senior government official said he thought plans to reach a staff-level agreement by then were possible. Despite the generally positive tone among officials in Athens, Christos Spirtzis, the infrastructure minister, publicly criticized the privatisation fund HRADF as being responsible for delays, singling out a motorway concession and negotiations concerning Athens International Airport. Today’s meetings are set to move on to health care, public administration, and fiscal issues.

# Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev are to meet this morning in Sofia in a bid to overcome deadlocked issues in the Macedonia-name negotiations. The two prime ministers held a brief meeting yesterday in the Bulgarian capital at the Party of European Socialists, where Tsipras is an observer. PES president and former Bulgarian prime minister Sergei Stanishev said the Greek-FYROM talks were key to ambitions to expand the European Union into the Western Balkans.

# Public discontent with Greece’s main parties has continued to rise, with the governing Syriza party facing the brunt of the anger, a new poll suggests. The Public Issue survey (for the period April 23 – May 7) found that 45 percent of respondents believe neither Syriza or New Democracy are able to properly address Greece’s problems, while 34 percent said the conservatives were able, and just 16 percent had faith in Syriza. The poll found 56 percent now favour holding a general election, while 86 percent say they are disappointed with the current government. 74 percent says that if elections were to be held today, New Democracy would win for just 18 percent of SYRIZA. 42 percent says that Conservatives leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis is “the most appropriate prime minister”, ahead of the Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (26 percent).

# Public gas corporation DEPA and Eni have inked a deal to sell a 51 percent stake in EPA Thessaloniki-Thessaly _ recently renamed as Zenith _ to the Italian energy firm for EUR 57 million. Prior to yesterday’s agreement, DEPA owned a 51 percent stake in the gas supply company, while the remaining 49 percent was held by Eni. DEPA will maintain its position as the majority shareholder in the EDA Thessaloniki-Thessaly gas distribution company. Next in line is an agreement currently being negotiated between Shell and DEPA, in order for the latter to acquire the Dutch firm’s 49 percent stake in their joint venture EPA Attiki, for a reported EUR 150 million. The two deals pave the way for DEPA’s privatisation. Details of the plan are being discussed in Athens by representatives of the institutions and Energy Minister Stathakis.

On our Radar: Gadget tax rethink
The government says it will reconsider a planned new “gadget tax” introduced this week. Digital Policy Minister Nikos Pappas tweeted that a 2 percent levy on smartphones and tablets would be re-examined. Additional charges of up to 6 percent on laptops, storage devices, and photocopiers were likely to remain. The Greek Federation of IT Companies said the new measures were “unfair and will hurt growth.”